Question One: There’s an often-cited statistic that people with disabilities are about 20% of the national population. And when we’re talking about disabilities, we’re including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, physical disabilities, chronic health conditions, sensory disabilities like blindness and deafness, and autism among many, many others with disabilities spanning all age groups from children, to adults, to seniors. I just want to understand more about your personal connection, or awareness, or understanding of some of the issues that are faced by the disability community.
Geoff Diehl (R): So I understand obviously that from an early age, there is intervention that the state is able to provide in assistance with children who have maybe special needs with health issues following birth. The individual support plans that schools provide for children obviously is something that the local school districts try to provide and obviously the state tries to help augment as well. Obviously, mobility is a huge issue. I live in a suburban town where there’s very little limited mobility options for people. In fact, we have very limited sidewalks in the town of Hanson where my wife’s performing arts school is. So it’s something that I think the state certainly has to continue to be aware of and look towards investments that just don’t spring to mind immediately when you’re thinking of just typical transportation needs. And by the way, I should cut the list short. It’s not just education, but making sure that transitional services, by the time people turn 22, those are in place. Again, workforce training for people who are able to find a career that fulfills them and what their abilities allow, that’s something that I know we as a state and local agencies that are funded by the state and federal programs are able to provide.
So when you say that it’s 20% of the population, really it doesn’t matter that it’s 20% because we’re all unique individuals in our own. And ultimately I think it’s incumbent on state government, and local government, and federal government, of course, to provide that American dream and that ability to enjoy your life to your fullest in every way possible. And so I think Massachusetts has been fortunate to be a state that has the resources to be able to provide a lot of those services. And yet at the same time, I think there are areas that are overlooked that perhaps I’m unaware of or maybe we just haven’t been able to achieve yet. Again, that’s where I hope that everybody on this conference and anybody that for the future that wants to approach me lets me know where we’re dropping the ball, so to speak. But no, I do appreciate your comment. And that is that we should never overlook any single person when it comes to what we can do to help them live that fulfilling life in every way possible.
Question Two: How will you work to ensure that Massachusetts schools drop the practice of segregated classrooms for students with disabilities and instead move to a more inclusive education for all, especially in urban school districts, but also beyond?
Geoff Diehl (R): Both my sister-in-law and brother-in-law on my wife’s side are special needs teachers. One is in Canton and the other one is in Quincy. And so both, certainly whenever we talk as a family, relay to me the importance of making sure that we have integrated classrooms where the children are fully participating at whatever level of performance they have. It doesn’t matter. It’s important to make sure that those social components are in place as well. And so it’s a challenge and I don’t agree with the practice of segregation within the classroom. And I do think that, again, everyone benefits. Just like my wife’s performing arts school, everyone benefits from the unique aspects of each person’s participation regardless of achievement level.
Question Three: How would you work toward ensuring a successful transition for all students with disabilities who are turning 22 and are in need of adult services?
Geoff Diehl (R): Again, that’s where I think we as a state have a great network of people. The Arc of Massachusetts, Independence Associates down where I live always made sure that they were known as a resource to go to if somebody had questions about what type of services that could be provided, whether it’s finding the housing, finding the transportation, looking for those employment opportunities regionally for people, the recreational activities that were available for people there. There’s Shine officers that help out in senior centers. They connect people who are seniors with the services that are available to them. And I think one of the things that I’ve found is that we have a strong network.
Again, I’m going to continue to say this. If you find that there are areas where there are gaps in those agencies that can help provide the connections to people in the services or resources they’re looking for, please let me know and we can try to make sure we fulfill those gaps. But I’ve been very lucky, again, to have a region of the state where I know that there is a pretty strong awareness of and financial support of agencies that are able to connect people to those turning 22 programs that help transition them away from the educational setting where, like you said, there are a lot of services provided and now they start to get more piecemealed. It’s not all in one type of service. So it becomes a little bit more challenging there.
Question Four: What would you do as governor to address the staffing shortages that are leading to lack of access or gaps within the DDS day programs?
Geoff Diehl (R): I think that the big problem the state has had for a while now, and the COVID pandemic certainly caused major problems across the entire state was employment. We still have underemployment within the private sector, we have underemployment within state agencies. The MBTA is one example where the federal government has had to intervene because of safety issues, because we have reduced staffing. I think that there was a problem where the vaccine mandates some people did not want to get vaccinated were either fired or they took early retirements, which has left us shorthanded in a lot of state agencies as well. And then on top of that, immigrants coming into our state who are able to work on visas were not able to travel during the pandemic and come in. So areas like the Cape and Islands, which rely on a lot of transitional workforce throughout the summer months, for example, we’re also unable to get people to work in different jobs. But really, again, where it affects people with independent living and the support that services that are provided. I think the similar situation. We’ve seen affordability issues in Massachusetts drive 50,000 people out of our state.
We just saw that last Friday there was a report that electricity rates are going to increase by 64%. It’s harder and harder to be able to afford to live in Massachusetts. I want to try to figure out ways to help people afford to live here. And that way we will have the residents, the citizens available to be part of the workforce for the future. So it’s not an overnight quick fix solution to try to get people back into the workforce, but I think that it’s something we have to look at as a major priority right now. Again, we’re seeing a trend of businesses leaving the state because they don’t necessarily don’t have the ability to find the workers right now. Some of that is workforce alignment. Kids are not necessarily getting trained in the careers that allow them to go right into certain fields. I do think that in the case of healthcare, for example, I’d like to incentivize people.
When I was in the state legislature, Western Massachusetts was having a shortage of people, doctors, and dentists, I believe, out in Western Massachusetts. It was a very sparse population that they couldn’t make a lucrative enough career to pay back the loans that they had gone into medical school for. And so the state was able to incentivize them to move out and relocate for a certain period of time to Western Massachusetts. I’d like to do something similar where if we are shorthanded in the area of healthcare, and in this case with the day programs, perhaps there’s a way we can incentivize people to get into that workforce faster right out of high school or maybe community colleges and get them working right away to shore up those gaps.
Question Five: What kind of specific actions would your administration propose to address that need for more affordable, more accessible and integrated housing for people with disabilities?
Geoff Diehl (R): I know we’re being hosted by the Boston Center for Independent Living, BCIL, but I also think that we have to look beyond the capital city and think about areas of the state where we have more affordable construction opportunities to create larger spaces to create the handicapped accessible buildings and requirements. And so part of that involves infrastructure investments as well. Not just looking at making sure the MBTA is running safely and on time, but also making sure that things like East West Rail or South Coast Rail are expanded so that we can allow people to live beyond Boston where maybe there is the more affordable housing options, but also that means investing in some of the infrastructure beyond just those transportation avenues. So I know that Governor Baker, for example, has proposed to about 175 cities and towns requirements that they increase affordable housing units near transportation hubs.
One of the criticisms I have with that plan is that it doesn’t include the support beyond just the building, the construction of the housing units. I think that the state needs also to make sure that things like … And it sounds mundane, but things like sidewalks and buses. Again, down in my suburban area, we don’t have the ride, we don’t have … Brockton, the nearest city has buses with handicapped accessibility, but we don’t have that in some of the suburban towns where it is more affordable to build and live in. So I’d like to really open up the expansion of housing opportunities in areas beyond Boston. People want to remain with family and stay in the Boston area. This continued expansion of office buildings taking over more and more of the land in the area, of course, drives up the overall gentrification because high paying jobs, of course, those people can afford more expensive apartments. And so even in South Boston, in Southie, the triple-decker, where the police officers used to live affordably, now one floor of those triple-deckers goes for a million dollars. Who can move into that? Nobody.
Again, when the state can and does provide the assisted … economically assisted apartments and buildings for people to get in, I think that we can do more. Again, I’m going to rely on experts to tell me where those opportunities exist, but I’m all for doing that. Again, we as a state are … we have six billion in excess tax revenue this year. This is not the first year we’ve had excess tax revenue in our state. I think it’s time that we start looking towards making sure our core services are available to those who need it, who fall into, I think you had said the 20% that perhaps are overlooked when it comes to mobility, when it comes to getting people to and from jobs that fit their abilities. We certainly can afford to do that. We just have to have the political will to do so.
Question Six: I think you mentioned partnering with Uber and Lyft and expanding that on The RIDE as one positive way to increase accessibility. What are some other examples or what are some other things you might propose for improving transportation on the fixed route or otherwise for people with disabilities?
Geoff Diehl (R): Down on the South Shore, there are some private services that have been able to augment public school bus limitations. Again, there are some of those public private partnerships that I think can fill the gap where I live. But again, when it comes to larger cities like Boston, I’m not necessarily sure how we can achieve some of that, perhaps some of the same type of solutions. But again, I’m going to have to defer on this one to more experts that know Boston a little bit better than I do.
Question Seven: Can we count on your administration to support the PCA program and work closely with advocates and labor representatives to strengthen rather than reduce the program?
Geoff Diehl (R): Yes. I hope to be the administration, I guess, that changes that trend by new incoming administrations. Again, serving on the Ways and Means Committee, I had a very fortunate opportunity for four years to be able to learn about transitional services, to learn about services for, like you mentioned, DDS. Just things that I was completely unaware of before I became a legislator. At 40 years old, I just hadn’t been faced with it myself necessarily. But it was a good opportunity to learn that the investments we make that attracted you specifically, Dianna, to Massachusetts and that keep people here rather than leaving is a valuable investment. We are as good as every person in our state and I think every person in our state has some level of contribution that we have to be … that we should be proud of. So I want to make sure that nobody wants to leave Massachusetts for any reason whatsoever. And the people that are working in home healthcare, the personal care assistance or attendance, we want to make sure that the compensation they receive is fair and equitable.
My wife is in a union, my mother was a union worker for 40 years. As I mentioned earlier, my sister and brother-in-law are teachers in the MTA. I certainly believe in making sure that those union workforces are bargained with fairly and that the compensation they receive is equitable in relation to the services they’re providing. So you’re not going to be looking at me as someone who wants to cut these incredibly valuable services or the number of people providing those services.
Question Eight: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about ways to support the funding … ways to support the wages and benefits for these workers and also for workers with disabilities. How to support people with disabilities in the workforce in both the public and private sectors?
Geoff Diehl (R): So one of the statistics I saw with the Boston Center for Independent Living was I believe 70% of the staff is actually people who have disabilities of some form, which is very impressive and again, a model for how we can maybe have staffing increases in other parts of our state agencies. Again, when it comes to wages, I certainly want to make sure that we’re paying fairly for the services out there. When it comes to other bonuses, I’m not necessarily sure. Just recently, I heard that the governor is implemented a new out of state overseer of time off, paid time off work partners. And there’s some concerns by a lot of state agencies as to having a third party private entity taking over the HR responsibilities of state workers. I’m going to investigate fairly.
I think the contract just took place. I’m not necessarily thrilled with that whole idea that somebody working in Massachusetts for a state agency or as in support of a state agency would have their direct supervisor no longer able to give them that immediate approval for the time off that they would need right away if there was family emergency. It just seems to be a bad decision. I’d like to learn more before I move away from it, but I do feel that that’s something that we should restore back to state agencies, more control over the workforce, time off that’s needed, whether it’s paid family medical leave, PMFL or sick time. So those are just things that I can think off the top of my head. I’m, again, not necessarily sure what other incentivization beyond perhaps educational incentive in educational costs incentives we can provide to get people into certain workforce fields that are understaffed, which I think I’d mentioned earlier. But again, if you have any other ideas that you think would help make a happier and a stronger workforce, I’m always going to be all ears.
Question Nine: During the pandemic, remote access to public meetings became a necessary response. It went beyond preserving public body’s ability to operate. It really opened the door to civic engagement for members of the public who had been previously shut out, including people with disabilities. And taking away remote participation would really shut out people who have for the first time been able to engage with their government in a new way without hindrance. I’m just wondering, with your leadership as governor, will you support remote participation in public meetings to really support keeping the door open on democracy?
Geoff Diehl (R): This is something that actually is really exciting. And I think one of the silver linings from the pandemic was the effect that people became much more comfortable with the technology that allows us to do remote meetings like this. And my wife and I, when schools in 2021, were going back to … kids were going back to schools, but only two days a week and then they would be home remotely for three days, my wife and I created a learning pod at our studio. We took the big dance rooms and created the spacing needed, the six foot tables and kids were at the end of each. And so they were there for the school day. We helped them get online and we helped them access the programs for their classes.
We saw that there were certain teachers that had a comfort level with the technology that was great. We saw teachers that didn’t necessarily know what they were doing with the online remote learning. We saw kids that adapted to it very well and we saw kids that just wanted to watch a video on their computer instead of being the virtual classroom. But the general point is this, I think people became aware that it is possible to use this technology as a way to engage in a way that we hadn’t really done in such numbers before. I also know that whenever we had hearings at the State House, the State House itself is sort of a very old building, kind of working in a museum. And some of the access in the Gartner Auditorium or even in the hearing rooms in the basement were very difficult for people with disabilities to always be able to get in there. It just was very hard. Sometimes just limited number of people in the room made it hard for people to get in there for those hearings.
So I think what we can do is open up legislative hearings. Hopefully the legislature would be open to this idea of having more engagement by having those hearings be more interactive. I know that they broadcast those hearings in some cases, but it would also be good if they allowed the interaction that we’re seeing today, the Q&A to take place as well. So I think the technology is there. I think it’s, again, more of a matter of the will. And I certainly am someone who, as you mentioned at the outset, believes in transparency. And so the more people know, the better government we’re going to get.
Question Ten: I want to go to a question on self-direction. This is a model of long-term service delivery that empowers people with disabilities to take control over what, the when, and how they receive services and supports. And many folks in the disability community consider self-direction a matter of human rights and fundamental to independent living. How will you support self-direction for people with disabilities?
Geoff Diehl (R): I suppose that’s a tough question for me to answer just because, again, I’m not necessarily sure in exactly what form that takes. Although I would say, as you mentioned, if it’s legal assistance that the state can provide to someone who feels that they’re not having the ability to self-direct, then certainly that’s something that we want to make sure that we connect those people to the legal services they should get. I don’t know if it’s an education component that needs to be put out there so that people in the community beyond families are aware that people who want to self-direct their lives should be allowed to. Again, I’m going to apologize now and say that I probably need to learn a little bit more about how I can support that, but I can’t imagine there would be any way that my administration wouldn’t want to make sure that’s a direction people can certainly take.
Geoff Diehl (R): One thing that I did when I was a state legislator was to go meet with the people that I was voting on bills that affected their livelihoods, whether it was lobstermen or cranberry growers or it was law enforcement officers, I did ride-alongs with police officers to see what was going on. I think what I need to do in this case is hopefully spend some time with you and advocates that can show me specifically where the rubber hits the road as far as where the administration and the state can make the best impact with the resources that you’re asking for. And that way, I can speak obviously with more authority by the time I’m in office and have a chance to make an impact over the next four years if I’m fortunate enough to win.
I am fortunate to have also a running mate named Leah Allen, who at the time when she served in office, her name was Leah Cole. She served with me in this House of Representatives and she went back to a career as a nurse. She has two children. Her husband is a mechanic in the Local 4 Elevators Union. And she is someone who is very passionate about trying to make sure that the hardworking folks of Massachusetts get the services from the state that they expect and get it with that transparency that we all believe gives us the best opportunity to succeed individually and as a state as a whole. And so I hope that as people, when they’re done with this session that we’re having today, if they want to learn more, we do have a website. It goes by diehlallen.com, www.diehlallen.com. If they can go to that website, we do have it in Spanish as well as in English. And people can learn more. There’s videos there. If you are able to get onto the videos, you can hear us talk about our policy positions and what we’d like to do for the state.
Again, I can’t thank you enough for the forum and for everybody who’s participated in this, and for the questions that were posed. But please know that this is a continuing discussion that we’ll have. Whether I get into office or not in November, my goal is to continue to be an advocate for the programs and the services that this state does and does well. And I’m an Eagle Scout. You’ve got to leave the campground better than you found it. Do a good turn daily. These are some of the things that you’re sort of told as a young kid and it’s drilled into your head. And so I’m just very fortunate to live in a state that, again, really does, I think, provide some of the best services, but there’s always room for improvement and I’m here to make sure that we take care of those improvements whenever possible.